His vehicles are Mariam and Laila, two intricate characters carved out of the same country, but from what might as well be two different worlds: Mariam, the illegitimate child of a local businessman and his servant; Laila, decades her younger, the educated daughter of a university professor. But each of them finds herself given, for reasons of namoos (“honor”), into an arranged marriage with Rasheed, a violent, misogynistic cobbler.
“My writing has always been on the dark side,” Hosseini has explained, “horrible things happen to these lovable characters.” In spite of its airy title, his second novel does not disappoint in this respect. A Thousand Splendid Suns is an all but unrelenting chronicle of tragedy.
Mariam spends her 15 seminal years in a hovel with her mother as an outcast — in the term’s literal sense — and awaits occasional visits of her father, the wealthy Jalil. Charmed by him but not understanding her place in life, Mariam runs away from home to Jalil’s compound in the city of Herat. She is turned back at the door, and returns home to find that her mother, shamed by this ultimate abandonment, has hanged herself. The twisted notion of honor likewise prevents Mariam from staying as a permanent occupant in Jalil’s household. She is married to Rasheed, who she first meets at her wedding, is removed 400 miles to Kabul, and never sees her birthplace again.
Laila, on the other hand, sees her edifying, prosperous life shattered in the whirlwind of Afghanistan’s recent history. The monarchy falls to a Soviet occupation force, and in the coming years, her brothers are killed in service with the mujahedeen. “Afghanistan is free,” Laila’s mother imagines, when the mujahedeen march into Kabul. But infighting soon exacts a worse toll on the population. Laila’s childhood sweetheart, Tariq, abandons Kabul with his family. And Laila’s family is about to follow when a stray rocket hits their house, and kills her father and mother — two of many such deaths Hosseini depicts in morbid detail.
Laila, injured and knocked unconscious by the blast, awakes to find — who else? — Mariam staring down at her. (If there is a fault to the plot, it’s that everything lines up a bit too predictably). Much as happened to Mariam living with Jalil after her mother’s suicide, honor intrudes upon Laila’s recuperation. “It looks dishonorable, an unmarried young woman living here,” Rasheed remarks to his wife, “We need to legitimize this situation.” The first wife is sent to the soon-to-be second’s bedside to deliver an ultimatum: Marry Rasheed, or be cast out.
Hosseini’s plot is a close examination and damning critique of honor as imagined in many parts of central Asia and the Middle East. He does not let honor stray from sight, and he works no multiculturalist exculpations. The only solace Laila finds in Rasheed’s demand that she stay indoors and don a burka — remedies for her parents’ “leniency” in her upbringing — is the anonymity it affords were she to run into an old acquaintance. “Honor” is made to look inhumane, as with the abandonment and forced marriages of the protagonists. And it is made to look preposterous, like when Rasheed complains about having to measure (in pre-Taliban times) the unclad feet of women: “It embarrasses me, frankly, to see a man who’s lost control of his wife.”
And through Rasheed, a nasty piece of work even by the standard of a Pashto male, it is made clear that this honor is underwritten by violence. Beatings are incurred for diverse reasons — overcooking the rice, contradicting Rasheed’s opinions, trying to run away. Hosseini’s description of the routine is haunting: “Downstairs, the beating began. To Laila, the sounds she heard were those of a methodical, familiar proceeding. There was no cursing, no screaming, no pleading, no surprised yelps, only the systematic business of beating and being beaten, the thump, thump of something solid repeatedly striking flesh.” The Taliban’s rise to power means Rasheed not only possesses a cultural sanction for his violence, but a legal one as well. His silent and brutal shows of force escalate, and even when he receives his fatal (and far-fetched) comeuppance at last, his wives’ vindication is also, for one of them, a death sentence.
In spite of a rather hokey, if mercifully short, final chapter meant, one suspects, for the likes of the Oprah Book Club, A Thousand Splendid Suns isn’t so much about overcoming tragedy as enduring it. This endurance is filled out by knowing descriptions of the savage, ordinary life of Afghanistan’s recent past, and infused with the dark humor and idiom of an American novel. So Rasheed regards “the Taliban with a forgiving and affectionate kind of bemusement, as one might regard an erratic cousin prone to unpredictable acts of hilarity and scandal.” Hilarity and scandal, indeed: It’s hard to draw the line over what to laugh or cry at amongst Hosseini’s scattered anecdotes. The flamingoes whose provocative pink legs so offend one austere Talib that pants are ordered to be drawn on them? The doctor required to wear a burka even while performing a caesarian section?
While Hosseini’s depiction of political change in Afghanistan — four decades of it, reduced to a 370-page novel — sometimes seems a bit contrived, no doubt that’s how much of it must be seen by ordinary Afghans. As Hosseini writes, “Presidents in Kabul had been inaugurated and murdered; an empire had been defeated; old wars had ended and new ones had broken out. But Mariam had hardly noticed, hardly cared.”
Khaled Hosseini has written a novel only he, an Afghan émigré turned American doctor, and a few others could write. It is the mark of not just a good, but a relevant novel that Hosseini’s plot, engaging in itself, serves a political purpose: to depict, in full, the violence done to women in the name of honor, as well as that bogus value’s lamentable intransigence.
– Travis Kavulla is associate editor of National Review.